Book Review: The High House

the high house

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is not enough to have an ark, if you do not also have the skills to sail it”

This is the third book by Jessie Greengrass that I have read. All have been enjoyed. Her writing just keeps getting better.

The High House is set in the near future. It explores the impact of climate change, particularly rising sea levels. More than that though, it revolves around a small cast of characters skilfully rendered. Few words are wasted on what they look like. What matters is how they feel and react to each other, and how events they must live through shape them.

The story is told from three points of view with chapters headed by their names: Sally, Caro, Pauly. The timeline is non-linear with much of the narrative filling in gaps. Structured in short sections, pace is pitched perfectly to maintain interest and momentum. There is an underlying tension in knowing what is to come.

Caro is raised in London by her father, an academic. When he marries Francesca, a scientist, they spend holidays at the High House. This is a large coastal property left to Francesca by an uncle. Visits cease after baby Pauly is born. Caro, now a teenager, helps care for the child. A respected expert in the field, Francesca is becoming more concerned about the impending climate disaster she can see coming – that the world appears wilfully blind to. She spends increasing amounts of time away from home.

Sally is raised in the village below the High House by her grandfather, Grandy. He has lived there all his life, watching it change from a farming and fishing community to a place filled with holiday homes. Grandy is employed as caretaker by the absent owners. When Francesca decides to make the High House an ultimate refuge for her family, he becomes involved.

Caro is not made party to Francesca’s plans. She feels abandoned, believing her stepmother has chosen work over her son. At the same time she enjoys the role she plays in Pauly’s upbringing. Francesca’s wider concerns bring tension to the home that affects them all.

News reports tell of increasingly unpredictable weather events in other places – the refugees created when floods wreak havoc. Viewer shock is short lived when events feel distant, while they remain okay.

“drone footage of torn buildings and flooded streets which showed the water lying still and calm and deep across places people had thought they owned.”

Sally is unimpressed by Francesca, resenting the attention Grandy pays her as she talks of what is to come. Grandy understands the power of the weather having experienced the lasting impact on his and neighbouring villages of the last great flood.

“-This isn’t going to be like that,
Francesca said.
-There won’t be memorials in church halls. No one is going to make up songs. There will be nothing left.
-Nothing?
I asked, and I felt gleeful, as though I had found the point at last, and now could press it home.
-Or only nothing of yours? People have nothing already. People are dying already. How can a threat to you be an apocalypse when the rest of the world is drowning and it’s only a fucking preamble?”

In London, residents and visitors enjoy the lengthening seasons of warmth and sunshine. Caro takes Pauly to their local park to play, aware of changes to plants and wildlife but not paying attention. There are day to day concerns to deal with whatever is happening beyond.

“We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that things were bad, elsewhere, but surely something would turn up, because didn’t it always for us?”

From the first few pages the reader knows who ends up at the High House and that Francesca’s efforts enable their survival. The story is of what happened and how they got there. The writing is incisive but also empathetic. The denouement is quietly devastating.

There are elements of domestic drama – jealousies, irritation, resentment, love – that draw the reader in, yet what this story offers is so much more. It is painfully easy to see the reflections of our current situation. When resources grow scarce, what is anyone willing to share and with whom?

Any Cop?: A tale so well crafted it may be enjoyed despite the warnings therein. Book reviewers are sometimes mocked for employing certain overused phrases. In this case I have no qualms in saying, The High House is a must read.

Jackie Law

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